Updated at 4:33 p.m. ET
Teachers at Chicago Public Schools were slated to return to the classroom on Monday, in preparation for the return of students to the district’s K-8 schools next week.
But on Sunday, a majority of the Chicago Teachers Union’s membership voted in favor of a resolution to continue to work remotely. The union said 71% of its voting members had voted to conduct remote work only, with 86% voter participation.
The Chicago Board of Education, which is appointed by the mayor, had ordered teachers and support staff for kindergarten through eighth grade appear in person on Monday in the country’s third-largest school district.
After the union vote, the district said it had pushed back the return of K-8 teachers and staff until Wednesday to “ensure we reach a resolution without a disruption to student learning.”
The district and the union “now agree on far more than we disagree, but our discussions remain ongoing,” Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson and Chief Education Officer LaTanya McDade said in a statement Sunday.
The union said the district made that move unilaterally.
CPS released figures last week that showed only 19% of students eligible for in-person learning have returned to classrooms – just half of what the district said in December it expected, NPR member station WBEZ reported.
The union says those numbers show that the “district doesn’t need anywhere near all of our membership to return to meet that need.”
The union argues that the return of teachers and staff to classrooms should be phased in as staff receive the coronavirus vaccine. School staff are eligible for vaccination beginning Monday, but it could take months to vaccinate everyone. CPS expects to receive supplies to conduct vaccinations directly starting in mid-February.
Also at issue are accommodations for staff who themselves are at high risk for severe COVID-19 infection, or live with someone who is at high risk. The district says it has made accommodations for all those who have high-risk medical conditions. But the union is frustrated that accommodations have not been made for all staff who have someone high-risk in their households.
President Biden has made reopening schools a priority. He was asked by a reporter about the Chicago schools dispute on Monday afternoon, but he declined to take a firm stance on whether the city’s teachers should return to schools now.
“I believe that we should make school classrooms safe and secure for the students, for the teachers, and for the help that’s in those schools, maintaining the facilities,” he replied. “We need new ventilation systems in those schools, we need testing for people coming in and out of the classes, we need testing for teachers as well as students, and we need the capacity, the capacity to know that the circumstance in the school is safe and secure for everyone.”
“It’s not so much about the idea teachers aren’t going to work – the teachers I know want to work. They just want to work in a safe environment,” Biden said.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot says the battles with the teachers union has led parents to consider moving to other school districts.
“Here’s what I’m hearing from residents all around the city and from parents in particular: If we don’t have stability in the public school system, why should we stay in Chicago? If we have to worry about lockouts and strikes, particularly after a historic contract where everyone thought we had bought labor peace for five years, people vote with their feet,” Lightfoot told the Chicago Tribune.
In 2019, a 15-day strike resulted in increased pay for teachers, $35 million to reduce overcrowded classrooms, and the district adding a nurse and a social worker at each school within five years.
Jackson, the district CEO, says CPS has spent more than $100 million on measures to reopen safely, including the purchase of more than 25,000 HEPA air purifiers.
Thousands of pre-kindergarten and special education students returned to classrooms earlier this month, alongside teachers and staff. About a third of those teachers and staff initially did not report for work in-person, Reuters notes, and as of mid-January, 87 of them remain locked out of their virtual classrooms by the district for failing to report for work.
The district has not announced when high schoolers will return for in-person instruction.